Is there such a thing as a “lifestyle” law firm? We’ve previously expressed skepticism: “[I]n every law school class, some people believe in kinder, gentler law firms. And lavender unicorns.”
Interestingly enough, we’ve been hearing that this recruiting season, New York’s top Biglaw shops aren’t placing much emphasis on “lifestyle.” While firms continue to talk about “collegiality” and say things like “there are no screamers here,” recruits report being told, even at the kinder / gentler firms, “You WILL work hard here.” Perhaps certain firms don’t want to get criticized for pulling the old bait-and-switch: brag about the “lifestyle” to 2Ls, show them a great time as summer associates, and then sling them over a barrel and have your way with them, once they show up full time.
But that’s at the largest law firms, in major markets like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Could smaller firms, especially in other markets, offer more options?
More discussion, built around the case study of a 10-lawyer boutique in Atlanta, after the jump.
Last month, an interesting article appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
The two lawyers reminisced when they were associates at a silk-stocking Atlanta firm, a time when they were young, aspiring and miserable.
Weekends, when they weren’t working, were a brief respite from the endless chase of billable hours. But Sunday evening rolled around with a pending dread. “We called it ‘Sunday stomach,’ ” said Kevin Broyles as his friend, James Fisher, laughed in agreement. “It was that feeling of ‘Aww, I have to go back to work tomorrow.’ “
It was back to the treadmill, back to churning out 2,000-plus billable hours a year and 60-hour workweeks.
Their stomachs are just fine now. In 2002, they left the big firms and started out on their own, eventually building FSB Corporate Counsel, a firm made up of 10 young lawyers who say there’s more to life than billing clients. It’s a business model one client calls “the wave of the future” as more attorneys leave the prestige firms for more flexibility.
At the recent press conference for Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession, Cynthia Calvert spoke about smaller firms that manage to combine lifestyle considerations and economic ones. Is this the type of firm she had in mind?
Perhaps. Consider this idyllic picture:
Life now moves at a different pace. Fisher picks up his daughter from preschool at 4:30 p.m. Broyles drops off his son at school at 8:30 a.m. and coaches Pee Wee football at 6:30 p.m.
“It’s a matter of getting your priorities in order,” said Broyles, 36. “I rarely have to work past 5 or 6 o’clock.”
It’s an odd boast from a Harvard-educated lawyer who once longed to be a partner at a big-time firm. It’s an industry built on a macho work-ethic model where well-paid young serfs (also called associates) toil long hours to prove their mettle and fund the partners’ generous compensation packages.
“Once you get rid of the middlemen, the guys making a million dollars on the hours you work,” said Fisher, 42, “then you’re not working for the Man anymore.”
A light went off in Broyles’ head in 2002 after leaving Morris, Manning and Martin, an Atlanta-based firm with 175 attorneys. He got three clients, with a monthly total of 48 billable hours, and “replaced 70 percent of my income.”
Could the declining appeal of Biglaw partnership be a generational thing?
Kimberly Verska, an FSB lawyer, said the willingness to more quickly jump off the partner track is “a Generation X thing.”
“If you want to succeed, you have to do it on their terms,” she said. “The flexibility [at big firms] is not there. Also, you have the guilt. You’re always thinking of your [billing] quotas.”
Verska, 38, came to her decision three years ago after the birth of her second child. She was an associate at Alston & Bird working part-time, meaning she billed 1,500 hours a year and worked 40-hour weeks.
“Their policy at the time [now changed] didn’t allow part-timers to make partner, even though I was profitable,” Verska said. She now bills 15 hours a week and keeps more of the money she generates. “Fifty to 60 hours a month allows me to replace my former salary.” And she sees her daughters every afternoon. “I’m their car pooler. I don’t have to hire someone to do that.”
So how exactly does FSB do it? Cheaply, for one thing:
FSB’s top rate is $225 an hour — at least $100 an hour less than those lawyers charged just a few years ago.
But, in lawyer parlance, they can “eat more of what they kill” — they keep a larger percentage of their billable hours, letting them equal or better what they earned as associates. FSB attorneys retain about 85 percent of what they bill, Broyles said. Associates at big firms — about a third.
They say low overhead lets them do it: No high-paid rookie lawyers, no expensive office artwork, mahogany walls or teams of support staff and no top layer of partners sopping up revenue.
The attorneys practice general commercial law and technology law. They work at clients’ offices or at home. They rent out conference rooms and share the costs of technology systems that let them pool their resources and act like independent contractors, working as much, or as little, as they choose.
“Technology allows us to do this — laptops, voice-over IP, video conferencing,” said Broyles. “You couldn’t do this 20 years ago.”
ATL readers: Is this type of practice the wave of the future? Or is it just too good to be true?
Life less hectic at laid-back law firm [Atlanta Journal-Constitution via Google Cache]
Polish Those Portfolios! Legal Eaglets Seek Their Nests [New York Observer]